Chum in the Water at Finance Trial

Dueling 'adequacy reports' liven up the courtroom

The state shortchanged AISD by $33 million last year if it expected the district to provide students an adequate education, according to one of the dueling spending reports presented this week at the ongoing school-finance trial.

That $33 million is 5.7% of AISD's total budget of $612 million, or about a quarter of what the school district sends back to the state under the current finance system of recapture, known as Robin Hood. It's a modest amount – not so high as to raise eyebrows, but still significant enough to have an impact on educating children.

Throwing numbers out at a trial mired in the minutiae of school finance is a bit like throwing chum on the water during shark season at the beach. Nice clean numbers make finance easy to understand, and the media, or even District Judge John Dietz, might be tempted to latch on. But like any report laid out by the education community, those numbers come with a lot of qualifications.

According to the figures from the adequacy report presented on Tuesday, Texas needed between $504 million and $990 million in additional funding to provide an adequate education just to students in the 46 plaintiff districts (including AISD) in the West Orange-Cove case. (The trial under way actually consolidates three different cases with three different sets of plaintiffs; the West Orange-Cove set comprises "wealthy" districts that lose money under Robin Hood.) This provided a counterpoint to the state's own study, which said school funding was just fine except for an extra $400 million Texas needed to provide – to the entire state – to bring pesky low-performing schools up to a level of "satisfactory" (that is, barely adequate) on state standardized tests.

Half the states in the country are in court over school funding right now, and adequacy reports are a cornerstone of most school-finance litigation. So it's no surprise that academics have found four ways to crunch the numbers. The report presented by the plaintiffs, by Jim Smith of California-based Management Analysis and Planning, was a professional judgment report, based on the opinion of five panels of educators who matched what they considered to be an adequate education with a price tag conservative enough to still be taken seriously by lawmakers.

Professional judgment studies are probably the easiest of the four kinds of adequacy reports to assail, because they are based on a certain amount of subjective judgment. That gave the state's lawyer Linda Halpern an easy target, and she drew first blood on Smith's work by questioning panel members' backgrounds and the way Smith crunched his numbers. Most glaring was the fact that two members of one panel were actually board members of the Texas School Alliance, a plaintiff in the school-finance lawsuit. Participants were culled from volunteers from 565 surveys sent out to high-profile Texas educators, and Smith said he had no idea that the participants' credentials included Alliance membership.

The testimony of the West Orange-Cove plaintiffs – to be followed by the Alvarado plaintiffs (financially middle-of-the-road districts) and the Edgewood intervenors (the state's poorest schools) – is expected to wrap up this week with a second adequacy report and a number of additional study experts. Co-counsel David Thompson will close out the West Orange-Cove case either Friday or early next week with the testimony of former Lt. Governor and state Senator Bill Ratliff, who was a key architect of the current school-finance legislation. Ratliff quit the Senate in disgust over the partisan politics at the Capitol earlier this year.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

school finance, West Orange-Cove, John Dietz, Edgewood, Alvarado, Management Analysis and Planning, adequacy, professional judgment, Bill Ratliff

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